‘Jewish Karma’: When Bad Things Happen to Good People Who Do Bad Things
I regretted my unkind words as soon as I wrote them. And then the pain I’d caused another person came back to haunt me.
At about 12:15 a.m. on a Saturday night, the smoke detector woke me up. I smelled nothing unusual, and the bedroom door felt cool to the touch, so I peeked out. My husband and I had lit two candles after Shabbos had ended to celebrate Melave Malka, the final meal that figuratively ushers out the Sabbath Queen. While Shabbos candles generally burn out around the time we finish our Friday night dinner, the candles for Melave Malka have often continued to burn even after we’ve turned in for the night. That Saturday night had been no different.
But this time, the varnish on one of the painted wooden candlesticks had caught fire, burning much hotter and higher than a mere candle would.
Fearing for my husband and children, I looked around for something to smother the flames. (Still discombobulated by my sudden waking, I forgot we had a fire extinguisher.) Reaching for a thick blanket, I accidentally knocked over the burning candlestick. As it blazed on the floor, I managed to put out the flames.
Then I felt pain in my right hand. I looked down and saw that it was on fire.
I could not recognize it then, but later I would decide this was middah k’neged middah at work.
The first time I heard the expression middah k’neged middah—which means “measure corresponding to measure” in Hebrew—an old friend explained it to me: “It’s like Jewish karma.”
Orthodox Jews like that old friend—and now, myself—believe that God not only created the universe, but that he manages it continually down to even the tiniest detail. In Hebrew, this concept is referred to as hashgacha pratit, divine providence, and one of the principles it operates by is middah k’neged middah. According to this doctrine, our actions not only have ramifications, those ramifications will likely reflect the original deed in both their nature and their size. In Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), we find that the sage Hillel discovered a skull floating in the water and said, “Because you drowned others you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned.”
Our rabbis detected other references to middah k’neged middah in the Torah itself: After Jacob tricked Esau, he was tricked by Laban; according to a midrash, he later lost a year of life for every word he exchanged with Pharaoh when they met. In another example, the Midrash Tanchuma suggests that each of the 10 plagues corresponded to one of the offenses of the Egyptians against their Jewish slaves.
While we often hear about middah k’neged middah in the context of ancient events, it still operates in today’s day and age. Like the night my hand caught fire.
The week before I injured my hand, I had traveled by bus from my home in Los Angeles to the Bay Area in order to help my sister, who had recently given birth to her second child. Before I left, my husband had presented me with a book I’d been longing to read for over a year, by a writer I very much respect. When I returned to L.A., I sat down to write a review of it.
For some people, book reviews are a chance to vent, but for me, they are a chance to do kindness. I often post reviews for books no one has yet reviewed, for example, and love hooking readers up with books they might never have otherwise considered.
With rare exceptions, I only post reviews for books if I can assign an honest rating of three stars or above. I maintain this policy partly because of Jewish law—it is unacceptable to speak or write hurtful or harmful words except in narrowly defined constructive situations (to defend a third party against physical, emotional, or financial injury, for example). But I also avoid writing negative reviews because I know first-hand that receiving them, especially from a colleague, is painful.
When I sat down to review the book my husband had given me, I wrote a three-star review. I mentioned my admiration for the writer. I mentioned the skill he exhibited in the beginning of the book and even my favorite part of the end. But I spent the majority of the review analyzing the faults I found in the final third of the book, which I felt was deeply flawed.
Upon reflection, I suspect that I wanted to prove my own expertise by dissecting the work of another, much-lauded writer. But really, the comments were unnecessary. In the years since he wrote that book, the author had already improved his skills; he certainly didn’t need my heads-up on errors he’d made long ago. I told myself that my criticisms could perhaps guide other writers, who might read the review, away from similar mistakes. However, most people who look up a book intend to read that book, not write their own.
The remainder of Friday afternoon, I busied myself with preparations for the coming Sabbath: baking fresh bread and cookies, roasting a chicken, chopping the vegetables for a salad. But by the time Shabbos started, and I could no longer use my computer, I regretted that book review. Despite the three stars at the top, I had written many negative things about another Jewish author’s work. Someone whom I admire. I’d broken my own policy—Jewish law, too—and felt jittery all evening.
I wondered, “How would I feel about seeing that review if I were that author?”
Sitting in synagogue the next day, I listened to the official reader chant the week’s Torah portion, Shelach. As I heard the story in the Torah about how spies were punished for speaking harshly about the land of Israel, I shuddered. Since they had said they were too weak to conquer the land of Israel from the giants who lived there, God would punish them, middah k’neged middah, by not allowing them the privilege of the conquest. Would I be similarly punished for the harsh words I had written the previous day?
Desperately wanting to ask my rabbi for guidance, I realized he was out of town. What should I do? I made a tentative plan: After Shabbos, I would take down the review, email the author through his website asking how he felt about my criticisms appearing in public, and only repost the review if he said he didn’t mind my comments.
Once I had a remedy in the works, I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the day. But by the time Shabbos was over, I had children to put to bed and a dining room to tidy. I forgot all about my plan. That is, until the fire.
Running to the sink, screaming, I turned on the faucet. Cold water rushed over my hand, dousing the flames. While every nerve in the affected area still screamed with pain, I thought what any writer would when faced with a serious injury to their dominant hand: Will I ever write again?
Due to my belief in hashgacha pratis, I knew my burn was no mere accident. The Gemara in Brachos 5a suggests that anyone who suffers should sift through their actions in order to discover possible misdeeds. While a person can never know for sure if they have correctly identified the particular transgression that generated their suffering, such an investigation provides an opportunity for repentance and renewal.
Standing in the kitchen, water coursing over my hand, I examined my actions of the previous few days. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the harm I had done to another writer with my right hand on Friday had come back to haunt me.
The last words I shared with husband on the way out the door with the paramedics: Go to my account, delete that review, and then say some psalms for my recovery.
By the time I arrived at the emergency room, the pain had started to wane. The doctor unwound the bandage the paramedic had wrapped around my hand. Dead skin peeled off a sizable portion of my hand. Livid, oozing flesh lay beneath.
The doctor told me I would require attention from a plastic surgeon to prevent the hand from contracting during the healing process, and that I might lose some mobility. As a nurse cleaned and debrided the wound, he explained that the burn would leave scars, most likely permanent ones.
What happens when the most authoritative guardians of the tradition are sometimes baffled by the tradition themselves?